SINGAPORE – Not only did she know next to nothing about the industry, it also turned out that that the former owner of the bridal shop she just bought had run off with clients’ money - leaving Teo Peiru and her business partner with about S$500,000 in debt, and customers’ packages to service.
“In short, he left an empty shell for us,” said Ms Teo, the managing director of La Belle Couture Weddings on Tanjong Pagar Road. “Everyone in this street was betting on us to close down within three months.”
That was in 2010.
These days, not only is La Belle Couture still around, its business is buzzing - at a time when the saturated bridal industry has been hard hit by e-commerce and cut-throat competition that has killed off several brick-and-mortar businesses, including along the very same road.
And Ms Teo, a first-time entrepreneur, has done it by flying in the face of convention - a story told in the new series Game Changers, about business people who revolutionise the way things are done in order to survive in the new economy. It premieres Feb 27 at 8pm.
WATCH: How she did it (2:02)
THE INDUSTRY WASN’T PREPARED FOR THIS
In the first year, it was a struggle just to survive. To keep the business going, Ms Teo and her husband took out personal loans of up to six-figure sums. Half a year in, it grew too much for her business partner who threw in the towel. But Ms Teo hung on.
In part, said the mechanical engineering graduate who worked in banking before striking out as an entrepreneur, it was realising that “I’m not sure I would have gotten the courage to start again”.
But the odds did not look good. Competition was brutal. In the past five years, Ms Teo had seen about a dozen bridal boutiques along her street shut down.
Shaking her head over a wedding gown that cost just RMB100 (S$20) on the China-based e-platform Taobao, Ms Teo said: “I mean, (buying) a T-shirt is fine, right? But a dress worth a few thousand dollars, you would actually go online to buy - that was something the industry really wasn’t prepared for.”
She added: “We knew that in order to overcome all these things, we could not afford to do things the way they had been done.”
THE S$45,000 ‘MIRROR’
To begin with, Ms Teo started a blog that doled out wedding planning advice even to non-La Belle Couture customers - defying the advice of others in the industry.
Realising that the Internet was here to stay, Ms Teo sought to give her clients something that e-commerce could not - a great in-store experience. “Which was why I was always looking out for new technologies,” she said. “And I found the FXMirror.”
La Belle Couture invested S$45,000 in the augmented reality “mirror”, which allows couples to try on gowns and suits virtually – doing away with the hassle of having to zip, tug and button oneself into the outfits.
Ms Teo believes that hers is the first to be used in the retail industry.
On a typical weekend, brides-to-be can be seen in the store giggling as they preen before the vertical screen, their “reflections” gowned in ivory or sheathed in sparkling magenta. The technology captures their measurements and tailors each virtual look to the individual.
And it has paid off so far. Because the ‘trying-on’ process takes less time, the boutique has increased its number of appointments by 30 per cent, said Ms Teo. Customer service ratings have also been hitting a near-constant nine out of 10.
‘SHE’S HUNGRY FOR CHANGES’
Bridal salons - typically run by family businesses or which have been around for a long while - tend to stay the same, said Ms Hellen Lie, founder of Rosette Designs & Co.
“But Peiru is someone who is hungry for changes in a big way,” she said of her friend.
For instance, Ms Teo has been keen on an intelligent assistant, or a chatbot, which can respond instantly, 24/7, to customers’ questions about wedding planning.
But realising how difficult it is to find something on the market with that level of intelligence, Ms Teo decided to develop it from scratch - by learning coding from her friends.
So far, she has built a food-ordering chatbot that is able to give food recommendations. Such technology, she said, could be a huge value-add for brick-and-mortar frontline businesses.
“She is making people sit up and notice,” said Ms Teo’s sister, Janine. “Not just the customers but also the other bridal boutiques and competitors in the market.”
Ultimately, Ms Teo Peiru believes that it is not enough to continue providing offline experiences, and that the retail scene has to look to satisfy customers’ needs “online, offline, mobile”. “There’s no way we can do it without harnessing technology,” she said.
But she throws in a caveat: “Technology itself will not answer all your questions.
“It’s not the Holy Grail, but (when) used by people who really understand the power of personalisation - that would really add the last bit of magic juice into the whole equation.”
Catch the first episode of Game Changers, a new 5-part series about business people who believe it’s reinvent or die, on February 27, 8pm SG/HK.